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San Jose promised a blight strike force — but not a single inspection has occurred

San Jose promised a blight strike force — but not a single inspection has occurred

It was sold this summer as a crackdown on businesses and residents who’ve let trash, weeds and graffiti fester in San Jose’s commercial districts — a new pilot program spurred by years of frustration over public safety and disheveled buildings in the city’s downtown and beyond.

Instead of the current model, in which citations are issued mainly after resident complaints, a devoted team of code enforcement officers would proactively seek out blight and ding those responsible.

“This is really about accountability,” proclaimed San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan at a news conference about the Focus Area Service Team, or FAST, shortly before the council approved the program in June. “We’ve talked a lot about getting back to the basics. Creating a city that is safer, that is cleaner and (where) everyone is housed. And to get there, we got to hold everyone accountable.”

Including, it turns out, the city itself.

The launch of the coveted pilot program has been held up for nearly two months, The Mercury News has learned, with inspections not set to start until at least November. The delay was discovered after a request was submitted by this news organization to the city’s code enforcement department on Wednesday for data on FAST.

“It is taking a little more time than expected,” said Deputy Director of Code Enforcement Rachel Roberts in an interview. “Mostly due to our staffing. As you know, we’ve worked really hard to get our vacancies filled. We’ve had to make some reassignments. So I’m having to move people around. We didn’t make those changes as fast as we hoped.”

The delay comes as blight becomes a key concern for the mayor and downtown residents amid uncertainty about the future of the city’s commercial vitality in the post-pandemic era. Nearly a third of available office space in the downtown core remains vacant as of June — a historic high. 

Roberts said the program will consist of three code inspectors, one of whom will be part-time. Outreach to businesses and residents will start in October before inspections commence the following month. Those inspections — which will be focused on downtown along with commercial corridors in Districts 5, 6 and 10 — will still run for their planned timeframe of six months. According to data presented in June by Roberts and the mayor, code enforcement’s vacancy rate has dropped from 28% in October 2021 to 4% in June.

“While we weren’t able to implement the inspections as quickly as we hoped, I’m confident that we’ll be able to effectively address blight,” said Roberts. “Taking extra time to ensure that we do that correctly is really important.”

The city also faces a major backlog of code enforcement cases, with a June memo from the city pegging the number at around 4,000 complaints. Roughly 300 of those were related to blight. Code enforcement violations can span from unpermitted construction to using the wrong materials for a residential retaining wall.

In August, Mahan and downtown Councilmember Omar Torres forcefully condemned the owner of a property on East St. James Street which has languished for years with a ripped-up plastic tarp covering the exterior of a church. Days after officials spoke out, construction executive Jim Salata dispatched a crew of workers on his own dime to remove the covering, a move that then sparked trespassing concerns from Torres.

The blighted First Church of Christ, Scientist building and an RV sit across the street from Devine Cheese & Wine on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Salata called the delay of the FAST program “a crock of crap.”

“This is maddening,” said Salata, who has owned Garden City Construction since 1988. “We don’t look good. We need to do a better job. It should start with code enforcement.”

Councilmember Torres did not respond to a request for comment.

This week, a review of San Jose’s top offenders when it comes to monetary fines from code enforcement found nine properties which include a former marijuana church and two large estates collectively on the hook for a whopping $1.05 million. None of the properties, which owe more than $100,000, are in the downtown core, and code enforcement has been in disputes with some owners for nearly two decades.

Mayor Mahan, who started his tenure with the promise of carrying through management themes he’d picked up during his time in the private sector, said he’d like the city to “move faster” in light of FAST’s delay.

“I think that turnaround times in government are too slow,” he said in an interview. “I want us to be consistent with the public. I want us to set deadlines and stick to them. And I want us to move with greater urgency.”